It's not yet 7am on a dreary Tuesday morning aboard the USCGC Spencer. The medium endurance Famous-class cutter is named after John Spencer, who served very briefly as President John Tyler's treasury secretary. The gleaming white, 270-foot, 1,800-ton Coast Guard vessel carries 14 officers and 86 enlisted personnel.
The cutter is docked at Manhattan's Pier 92 in the Hudson River. Fleet Week is about to start, and public tours of the ship will start the next day. Lieutenant Commander Frank Montalvo, the Spencer's executive officer, points out the twin .50 caliber machine guns, mounted port and starboard, as well as the OTO Melara 76 millimeter naval gun up front.
It's impressive, but some others aboard the ship — veterans, USO volunteers, a contingent of executives from the New York Jets front office, along with two Jets cheerleaders — seem far more impressed by nearby gray-hulled Navy ships. Two men gaze at the 25,000-ton, US Navy Amphibious Landing Platform tied up at the next slip. Then one turns to the other and says:
"I have hull envy."
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The Coast Guard was described in 2013 by an associate professor at the Naval War College as "thoroughly unsexy." It has been called a junior navy (it's not), and Coast Guard personnel have been called cops of the ocean (they aren't). Rather, the Coast Guard has a unique dual mandate, with both military and law enforcement authority. In practical terms, this means they have jurisdiction over anyone on any vessel anywhere within US waters — and the authority to enforce international maritime law within most of the rest of the planet's waters.
The Navy exists "to put metal-on-metal, to project power," says Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander and the founding director of the Center for Resilience Studies at Northeastern University. The Coast Guard's less intimidating profile, Flynn adds, is actually that way on purpose. First off, a white vessel pulling into a foreign port sends a very different message than does a gray warship. It's one reason why the Navy's hospital ships are white instead of gray.
"The Coast Guard plays a variety of different roles, and it can be this kind of Rosetta Stone across security challenges that don't fit well within a traditional military context," Flynn says.
Many Americans don't realize that the Coast Guard's mission extends far beyond US waters. The Coast Guard is tasked with protecting the public and the environment, and also must safeguard US economic interests in "any maritime region as required to support national security." The United States Exclusive Economic Zone gives America sovereignty over 4.7 million square miles of ocean, which surrounds not only the US mainland, Alaska, and Hawaii, but also Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and large parts of the Western Pacific — Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Midway, and several others are US territories.
'America spends money on the US Navy like drunken sailors.'
China currently claims sovereignty over more than 80 percent of the entire South China Sea, and in large part they are using their coast guard to cement their claims because it escalates tension less than the presence of their navy. At the same time, Japan, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia are asserting ownership themselves — often via their own coast guards. Although the rich fishing grounds and potentially huge deposits of oil and gas in the region aren't under direct American control, the US is bound by treaty to protect Japan and the Philippines from armed attack. There's also an economic interest in protecting the $5.3 trillion in global trade transiting the South China Sea each year, 23 percent of which is American.
Sending Navy warships to the area would be "unreasonably provocative," Sam Bateman, a former commodore in the Australian Navy, recently said. Which is why last year, Captain David Adams, commander of the Navy's 7th Fleet, called for a Coast Guard presence in the South China Sea as a less inflammatory counterweight. In fact, the US Coast Guard maintains an excellent working relationship with its Chinese counterpart, former Coast Guard Captain Brian Kelley tells VICE News.
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The two Coast Guards began working together about 15 years ago, as participants in the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum (NPCGF). The NPCGF's members also include Canada, Japan, South Korea, and Russia, who all collaboratively work on fisheries enforcement, illegal migration, and smuggling issues. To that end, there are often US Coast Guard liaisons aboard Chinese Coast Guard vessels, and vice-versa. There is a Coast Guard captain stationed at the US embassy in Beijing. Conversely, the relationship between the Pentagon and the Chinese Navy has been described as either on or off, with nothing in between.
The problem is that the Coast Guard, simply doesn't have the capacity to do what it needs to do in the South China Sea. And according to Coast Guard's financial projections, they won't anytime soon. As Ronald O'Rourke, a naval affairs specialist with the Congressional Research Service said last year, "The Coast Guard barely has enough ships to even do its domestic missions."
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"[T]he Coast Guard has ships sailing today that are 60 years old — well beyond their service life," Admiral Paul Zukunft, Commandant of the Coast Guard, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Technology subcommittee last month. "The Medium Endurance Cutters that make up the backbone of the offshore fleet are reaching 50 years of age. Over the last two years, four of these cutters have experienced emergency drydocks, losing nearly 20 percent of their planned patrol days."
The Spencer, which will be 29 years old in June, is now 9 years past its planned 20-year service life. As time goes on, keeping the Spencer operational will get costlier and more time-consuming.
Nevertheless, Montalvo said the Coast Guard "hopes to get 10 to 15 more good years" out of the Spencer. At that point, the ship will in theory be replaced by an Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC), a more advanced version of itself. The OPC is still in the design phase, but the finished product should cut down on some of that hull envy. It will be possible to fire the OPC's dual .50 caliber machine guns by remote control, useful for, among other things, fending off terrorist attacks in port. The 57 millimeter deck gun "will provide the ability to stop rogue merchant vessels far from shore."
The OPC will be 5 knots faster than a medium endurance cutter and have air-and-surface search radars and target classification sensors. Its Chemical, Biological, and Radiological, Detection and Defense (CBRD&D) capability means that the vessel will be able to respond to things like dirty bombs.
However, paying for the 25 OPCs the Coast Guard says it needs — at a cost of about $484 million per ship — has become a major problem.
In March, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft told the House Appropriations Committee that the Coast Guard's 2016 budget request would fall $69 million short of fully funding the OPC. (The balance would be kicked in by the Department of Homeland Security if a series of affordability benchmarks are met.) But even if the funding comes through, the OPC's $12.1 billion total price tag, the largest in Coast Guard history, will eat up about two-thirds of the Coast Guard's acquisition budget between 2018 and 2032, according to congressional testimony by Michele Mackin of the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO). This will leave the Coast Guard struggling to operate its existing icebreakers, buoy tenders, and helicopters — much less devote attention to any other major needs for more than a decade and half.
"The Coast Guard has responded by annually delaying or reducing its capability," says a companion report titled, "Coast Guard Acquisitions: As Major Assets are Fielded, Overall Portfolio Remains Unaffordable."
"We spend money on the Navy like drunken sailors," Flynn says. "But the Coast Guard's funding doesn't come from the Department of Defense, it comes from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)…. The Coast Guard is also competing with other elements of DHS — Secret Service, Customs, FEMA — for funding, and these are all agencies with their own capital needs that are not insignificant."
Former Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert Papp has said the Coast Guard's annual acquisitions budget of about $1.4 billion would have to increase by more than a billion dollars for the Coast Guard to properly do its job. They've almost done too good a job of improvising over the years, which Eric Wertheim, a combat fleet specialist at the US Naval Institute, believes is part of the problem.
"The Coast Guard doesn't tend to complain a lot, so they get taken for granted," Wertheim tells VICE News. "People just assume they're always going to be there."
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